Monday, April 19, 2010

April Musings




The curtains, billowing in the wind, brush against my bare feet; a gush of cool air enveloping me momentarily. The cuckoo bird’s call, the dulcet breeze, the soft morning light, and the smell of the rain-soaked earth; April mornings are a delight to wake up to. Before my mind acts on the urge to sleep in late, I get out of bed. Drops of wet gleam on the window at the foot of my bed; I walk towards it. The lawn outside glistens with dew drops, and the smell of the previous night’s rain is overpowering.

I put my foot across the window ledge, climbing out into the lawn. The softest grass touches my feet; its wetness is strangely comforting. The earliness of the hour offers me few precious moments of silence that will become elusive during the rest of the day. I gaze down at my feet as I walk across the lawn. The red nails against the green grass and the tiny jewels in my anklet, gleaming in the sunlight, paint a pretty picture. Birds flit through the shadows of the trees; their intermingling calls producing a familiar melody. Pied daisies and roses break the monotony of the greenery. I sit down at the lone weathered bench at the corner of the lawn and try to grasp everything that meets my eye. The whole ambience screams poetry.

The stillness is deceiving, as if it would remain so forever. I know it’ll break as the day progresses, and this uneasy anticipation holds me back from fully enjoying the moment. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I notice the lack of chaos in my thoughts. For a change I’m not thinking about anything else, but the serene present. It’s such a rarity, and such a relief to focus only on the present. As if on cue my mind mockingly fleets to past reminiscences and imaginations of the future.

Glimpses of the view from my window, in the house I grew up, with the treetops swaying in the wind; the sunset I turned back to watch as I walked back home tired and sweaty from playing long hours with my friends; the sound of heavy rain captivating my attention for hours as I sat in the veranda during the long, monsoon days; random memories cross my mind. Nothing significant, but sharing the commonality of not so obvious moments of happiness. But today I am highly aware of the beauty that surrounds me, registering every detail in my memory, knowing fully well that I’d recall and relish it for long.

I remember a song.

Aane wala pal, jaane wala hain; ho sake toh is mein zindagi bita do, pal jo yeh jaane wala hain”.

(Each moment that comes, will soon pass; so try to live a full life in each passing moment)

The lines so aptly impart one of life’s most important lessons. Small moments of happiness pass us everyday and we remain completely unaware as we hanker after that one big success or goal. The race to attain these supposedly more important goals and thence to attain happiness is cruel and unforgiving. You pause, you lose. I break this disturbing chain of thought. Instead I start humming the song I just remembered. Solitude dilutes my earlier inhibitions when it comes to singing out loud. Only when the pair of birds next to me flies away, startled, that I’m reminded of how bad a singing voice I possess. I look around, more out of habit, if another person had the misfortune of hearing me sing first thing in the morning. Thankfully, no one in the house has awakened yet.

A butterfly lands on the edge of the bench I’m sitting in. An array of bright colors adorns its body. I want to touch its wings but its fragility scares me. I’m reminded of the movie I watched last night, ‘The Diving Bell &The Butterfly’. It’s about a busy writer, a family man whose life is brought to a standstill by a stroke that paralyzes his whole body except his left eye, through which he communicates by blinks. His life is suddenly filled with unasked for solitude and stillness. I compare that absolute stillness to the few of moments of pleasing solitude I’m enjoying now, and it scares me.

Suddenly I yearn for company. Voices. Laughter. I walk back into the house. Coffee and conversations await me.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Wondrous World of Bhaona



My father’s childhood tales were an integral part of my growing up years. Every weekend after lunch I would lie on his tummy, and listen to these tales which were occasionally filled with funny Bhaona anecdotes. Growing up in a village, my father’s family was intimately involved with Bhaona (a play based on mythological events and staged in villages usually). All my uncles and aunts took part in it during their childhood, with the exception of my youngest uncle who continued to act in it till he was thirty-five.

One of my aunts played ‘Raja Harishchandra’ and her moustache fell off during the act; a student playing ‘Rama’ took full advantage of the chance to beat up a mathematics tutor, who played the ‘Ravana’; and many more. My father once played ‘Krishna’ and his elder brother played ‘Balaram’. When the time of their entry into stage came, ‘Balaram’ was missing and even after a frantic search backstage they couldn’t find him. Without further delay, only ‘Krishna’ entered the stage and while mouthing the dialogues his eyes suddenly fell on his mother (my grandmother) sitting in the audience. My eldest uncle, who was playing ‘Balaram’, was sitting in my grandmother’s lap and nonchalantly chewing ‘chanaa’ while still wearing ‘Balaram’s costume!! He evidently felt bored and decided not to act at the last minute! Such goof-ups, wrong or forgotten dialogues, and funny wardrobe malfunctions made these locally staged plays totally entertaining.

My father’s native village is in Teok, and every year we would make it a point to attend the Bhaonas held there. My youngest uncle was very much into acting in theatrical plays and every Bhaona season he was flooded with offers to act in it. He was always happy to oblige. He often ended up enacting roles of ‘Asuras’ or demons, owing to his 6’2” height and bulging muscles! He played ‘Kansa’ (during Raas Leela), ‘Hiranyakashipur’ (in ‘Bhakt Prahlad’), ‘Ravana’ (in ‘Ramayan’), ‘Duryodhan’ (in ‘Mahabharat’) etc. How he relished portraying these evil characters! Creating terror in the audience, nearly making the kids pee out of fright!

As the Bhaona night drew near, my excitement knew no bounds. Every night I would sit with my uncle while he rehearsed his lines in that deep baritone voice of his; looking smug at having such an enthusiastic supporter near! My mother dreaded the approach of the Bhaona season because it would mean the sacrifice of an expensive sari from her wardrobe. My uncle would ‘borrow’ a sari to wear it as a dhoti, as Bhaonas are famous for gaudy attire. He would sheepishly return it the next day with tears and cuts that were usually beyond repair, much to my mother’s dismay.

And then the day of the Bhaona arrives. I would see off my uncle in the evening with a thousand “All the best” wishes. At around 7pm the whole extended family would miraculously fit into two cars and drive off to the Bhaona venue. We would endure a two hour drive sitting in the most awkward poses to free up space to squeeze as many individuals in the car! There would be a stop over at a road side Dhaba (a food stall) to eat delicious ‘tandoori’ food. Post dinner we would pile into the car again and indulged in a mellow conversation; the effect of a tummy filled with delicious food.

A huge tent would be erected at the Bhaona venue; a central stage around which the crowd, seating on the ground, happily jostled for space. The atmosphere was replete with laughter and conversation, and the anticipation was palpable. The lights would dim; artificial smoke filled the stage; sound of drums (Dhol) announced the entry of the ‘sutradhaar’, welcomed with hearty applause. Then for the next hour or two the audience remained mesmerized as the drama enfolded. Collective shouts of joy greeted the entry of the ‘hero’ (Rama, Krishna, and Prahlad etc; depending on the play) and collective gasps of fear marked my uncle’s entry! It was indeed a fearful sight; the painted face, the long-haired wig, the huge moustache, the heavy costume, the weapons he carried (even though fake), the careful lighting and the dramatic sounds of ‘Dhol’ and ‘Taal’ made my uncle look scarier beyond belief. His entry was cue for the little kids, including my sister, to hide their faces in their mothers’ laps. The fights were funny with psychedelic red light portraying flow of blood and the costumes were amateur; but the dialogues were riveting, and the acting good. The audience was thrown into laughing fits when the 'ladies' entered, because very few females participated in Bhaona and the ‘heroines’ were mostly reed-thin, slightly effeminate men dressed as females.

During the intermission I had special access to the actors green room backstage because my uncle always kept the Bhaona organizers informed that his family might visit. A family friend once went to visit my uncle backstage. The organizers inquired his identity and he replied, “I’m Kansa’s brother, let me go” (“Moi Kansa’r bhaiyek, muk jaabo diyok”); and the organizers burst out laughing at this weird identification!! My initial euphoria of a peep into the Bhaona backstage died when I saw the actors, in their frightening costumes, towering over me. The actors with heavily painted faces, wearing ladies costume and leisurely puffing a cigarette looked more frightening than those playing the demons. Surrounded by ‘Hanuman’, ‘Sita’ and ‘Surpanakha’ sharing a smoke; ‘Ravana’ and ‘Rama’ in an animated discussion, backslapping each other; ‘Vibhisana’ quietly eating pakoras at a corner; it was one surreal experience to go backstage in a Bhaona. The Bhaona would go into the wee hours of morning, and the sleepy but happy audience would give the actors a standing ovation at the end. And then it was dozing back in the car for us on the way back home, and waking up at noon the next day.

Gradually things that had been an integral part of my growing up years and had brought me so much happiness are slipping away. It’s been nearly a decade since I last saw a Bhaona. My uncle doesn’t act any more; the families that happily piled into the car have scattered all over India; and things just aren’t the same any more. But the memories of Bhaona are still in vivid in my mind with its endearing eccentricities.

Photos: Of my uncle during his Bhaona performances.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Joys Of A Common Childhood


A sister smiles when one tells one's stories - for she knows where the decoration has been added. ~Chris Montaigne

Her childhood was terrorized by the fear that I can read her thoughts if I keep my hand under her pillow at night. I had told her that and she believed me. Just like the time when she tearfully kissed her fingers goodbye and signed a 'No Objection' document (so that she can’t sue me later) and permitted me to break her fingers because I had told her that’s the punishment for losing a bet.

Sisters by birth, best friends by years of co-habitation and rivals by choice. I was four when my claim of exclusive attention from my parents ended. I distinctly remember holding the lump that was my sister covered in what seemed a zillion baby blankets and wondering how soon she will grow up and I can make her do all my work! And for the first ten years my wish did come true, forcing me into a false sense of security of my dominance; and then when I least expected it, role reversal! And it has been that way ever since.

She was an unusually quiet child and her obedience irritated me no end because my parents expected me to follow her example. No fuss, no tantrums, very kind, always smiling and had all the virtues that I lacked. My scheming mind took full advantage of the situation. If she chose something I liked, I would start acting as if I absolutely despised that object and she would promptly give it back to me, not wanting to keep the ugly thing anymore. I absolutely doted on my sister and was very protective of her but as an elder sister I felt it would be criminal not to utilize her obedience! One day she saw through my evil schemes and I can’t express in words my shock on the rebellion that followed. The fights that she earlier won by mere crying and thus earning my parents support, now she won by pure strength and evil strategies. I was literally dragged around the room when I angered her! So much for respect of elders!

When we were kids I’d often walk in on her wearing heavy jewellery, a black skirt over her head (to substitute for long hair, and if the black skirt had been sent for washing, she would wear a yellow skirt and pretend she was a blonde), dark red lip color and advertising a shampoo before the mirror. These things were normal, and didn’t induce any laughter or humiliation. Mathematics terrorized her, and tutoring her in math were the only blissful moments when I could scold her without her replying back.Once she scored good marks in math and she literally treasured that report card by ironing it every week to smooth out the creases and preserved it for years. (She’s so going to kill me for this!) Only I knew her quirks, and only she knew mine.

And there are the jokes, the conversations and the coded glances; that only sisters share. Our private jokes are a result of highly weird imagination and victimization of unsuspecting people around us. We laughed till we cried almost daily. It did help that my sister is a born mimic and comedienne. Growing up was never so much fun.

We didn’t have privacy while growing up. Sharing was the unspoken, unchallenged rule. One bed, one bathroom, one wardrobe. We would divide our space in bed equally by careful mathematical assumptions and even if my leg crossed over to the her territory it would be mercilessly kicked back. Just like the television remote use was divided into two halves of the day, till 5:30 pm mine and after that hers. While I gloated at first over the abundant number of TV hours I had, I soon realized that I was duped. I reached home by 4pm after school/college and barely got to watch any program when the clock rushed to 5:30pml and she would come towards me in a slow triumphant walk and with a sadistic smirk on her face and take possession of the TV remote. Even though we shared the same wardrobe, we had very strong territorial rights and I had to take due permission before borrowing her clothes.

The similarities of our interests we took for granted and the differences always shocked us. How can she not like reading books! I spent half of my life poring over novels and she prefers only 'Archie comics', that too on rare days when she felt like reading! And then she would watch few mind-numbingly boring movies (which I called 'tertiary' because that' the degree of preference those movies received from me) that I won’t even recommend to my worst enemies. These differences made me wonder whether her birth was 'staged', and she was actually adopted. She is quick to retort that it was high time I started looking for my 'real' parents. She has a huge number of friends while I have a small intimate circle. She can adapt to any place instantly, while I take my own sweet time. Our mercurial temper and love for potatoes are shared vices though. And our fights as kids are legends in the family! Pillows sacrificed, hairs uprooted and on one instance she even chased me around the house with an extra-large ladle (‘heta’ in Assamese)!


We are sisters, secret-sharers, best friends, rivals, co-conspirators; all at the same time. After twenty years of being so, she had recently shifted to another city to pursue her higher studies. I was dreading the moment of her departure for months, and I felt worse than I had anticipated when she finally left home. But the very next day she started issuing orders over phone, fighting with me, cracking jokes and things were back to normal. I miss seeing her every day; but we have to follow our own course in life now. The bond we share is too strong to get affected by mere physical distance.

Even now we would rather have red ants crawling on us than admit how much we love each other. But I can’t deny the fact that she is the most important person in my life, a notch above my parents even. I look to her for sensible advice because my rashness often leads me to trouble, and she doesn’t disappoint me. There are times when I finally get to play elder sister and correct her wrongs. Even though I complain about her asking me to do her class assignments occasionally (that too, long-distance, damn e-mail!), I secretly enjoy being indispensable to her in these small ways.

We have shared a childhood; carefree, happy times; nitty-gritty of life as adults; and a lifetime of memories. I thank God that I was fortunate enough to share my life with a sister, even though I wanted to sell her off when we were young! I love you, Poochki!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Walk Between Sunset and Moonrise


I halt at sunset, forever it seems;
The darkness unsettling,
Mirroring the shadows I take refuge in.
Caught in a tiring dilemma;
The day I cannot return to,
A night I dread to enter.
Past failures, present indecisiveness,
Future unpredictability haunts me.
Time is past, the battle lost;
And I must never emerge from my shell.

And then a brave new hope…

I walk towards the moonrise,
Stepping on, are those past failures?
Emboldened each moment,
I take small steps, surer steps.
Something brings hope,
Blows away uncertainties.
I search for my old self,
Perhaps looming in the distant horizon;
But a better self is mirrored back,
Now, this moment; I am she.
Unburdening the inferiority and pessimism,
I break into a run.

Is that a brighter light I see?

I run towards the dawn.
Time’s ticking away;
No use mourning the moments lost,
I would lose some more.
To catch up would be tough,
To surpass, euphoric.
I see it now, my goal, definite and clear;
The remoteness doesn’t scare me,
Nor will that darkest hour before dawn,
The one with wagging tongues, critical stares,
Deadly impatience and relapses into self-pity.
Translating this strong self-belief into action,
I shape my destiny;
And I run, like never before,
Towards the inviting new day.

Photo Courtesy: http://larsvandegoor.deviantart.com/art/Count-Your-Blessings-155154145